Vouchers Are Not a Plan

Opponents of a single payer health care system in the United States like to say it would cost too much, even throwing in the inappropriate complaint that the CBO has not scored any plan.  Of course that won’t happen until congress puts bills such as H.R. 676 through the committee system. As an alternative a voucher plan is often offered up. The only thing that the voucher system offers is a cost-shifting lid on government spending. No control over total health care costs. No access to medical care for those who cannot afford the ever-increasing costs not covered by the vouchers. No system. An improved, expanded Medicare would require hard, thoughtful work and discipline, but it can succeed. We can pick and choose figures to argue over but  there is no ethical and rational alternative.

The financing of Medicare for All is a well explored issue. As far back as 1991 the GAO reported that, “If the universal coverage and single-payer features of the Canadian system were applied in the United States, the savings in administrative costs alone would be more than enough to finance insurance coverage for the millions of Americans who are currently uninsured. There would be enough left over to permit a reduction, or possibly even the elimination, of copayments and deductibles, if that were deemed appropriate.”   Later the same year the CBO reported, “If the nation adopted…[a] single-payer system that paid providers at Medicare’s rates, the population that is currently uninsured could be covered without dramatically increasing national spending on health. In fact, all US residents might be covered by health insurance for roughly the current level of spending or even somewhat less, because of savings in administrative costs and lower payment rates for services used by the privately insured. The prospects for controlling health care expenditure in future years would also be improved.” (“Universal Health Insurance Coverage Using Medicare’s Payment Rates”) .  Fourteen years later the lack of true (not just for the government) cost controls make improved Medicare for All an even more imperative goal.

For a good, up-to-date discussion (2013 figures) of H.R. 676 see the article by Gerald Friedman, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Friedman extrapolates on (1) the savings on provider administrative overhead and  pharmaceutical costs, (2) the regressive and obsolete funding sources to be replaced by progressive taxation (in billions of dollars), (3) the savings on administrative costs of insurers, Medicaid, and employers (in billions of dollars) and (4) the savings on federal tax expenditures.

As Professor Friedman states, “On top of the enormous administrative savings of single payer, the savings from effective cost-control would make it possible to provide universal coverage and comprehensive benefits to future generations at a sustainable cost.”


…and study Friedman’s charts

Funding with progressive taxationFunding with Tobin Tax

Improve-Don’t Destroy-Medicare

The recently passed House of Representatives “doc fix” is a warning and should serve as an inspiration to forge ahead in improving and expanding Medicare for all.  Instead of sticking with the necessary goal of repealing the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) the Republican lead House has started on its quest to privatize (cost-shift back to out-of-pocket expensing) Medicare and cut back on Medigap benefits. Those of us who are concerned about the health care of everyone in our country need to get serious about the job of improving Medicare even before we move into universal coverage. We could start with proposals for quickly eliminating the donut hole in drug coverage. That, combined with eliminating the proscription against negotiating prices with the pharmaceutical industry, would offer affordable availability of even the specialty drugs for cancer, hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid diseases, etc.  A quick fix should be made to the physician payment system until workable substitutes for our present volume based system can be developed under a single payer plan. That fix could be a simple up-adjustment of evaluation and management codes and down-adjustment of procedural codes with a budget neutral end point. And we could stop wasting time, money and other resources on the present catch-word pay-for-performance and pay-for-value experiments. Attention could be focused on mental health and long term care needs. Expandable systems could be developed for these areas even before Medicare moves to universal coverage. We should also be making the necessary changes to eliminate the need for Medigap policies, Part D coverage, and Medicare Advantage Plans. Not solely related to Medicare but open to immediate action would be improvement in the recruitment and financing of the primary care pipeline from first year medical students through residency training programs. We could also take a few steps back to re-think the present electronic medical records push and its Meaningful Use regulations. This has been a poorly thought out, expensive, provider exhausting  effort with a huge disconnect between the stated goals and the existing technology and financing resources.

We should be improving Medicare, not destroying it. We should all be putting pressure on our Congressmen and administration to eschew any actions that disregard the above goals.

All the Way to the Bank

There has been a lot of discussion about excessive CMS payments to the privatized Medicare Advantage plans.  One area of special concern is the risk management adjustments that provide additional payments for the care of high risk patients. This leaves open a huge area for gaming the system by the insurance companies. Upcoding and adding new diagnoses (not those supplied by the attending physicians) seems to be on the increase. A recent article by Bob Herman in Modern Healthcare discusses this problem. Besides this chicanery of the insurance industry one of the most sordid aspects of the current debate is the overt buying of government by the same industry and the obvious bribery in the U.S. Senate. 53 Senators have sent a letter to CMS pressuring the agency to continue the overpayments. According to Open the two senators leading the pack have received more than $727,000 in campaign funds from the health insurance companies in the last 8 years; Mike Crapo $234,000, Charles Schumer $493,000. In the mind of Everyman this is unethical. But, then, we already know that our politicians are not answerable to Everyman.

CMS continues to tout troubled ACO programs

With its announcement yesterday, “ACOs Moving Ahead,” of 89 new members of the MSSP CMS neglected to mention the recent figures from NAACOS. CMS continues its propaganda designed to hide the lack of success of its three Accountable Care Programs. The MSSP program was designed to move into a two-sided risk acceptance format where the providers would share in both losses and savings. In November the National Association of ACO’s published the results of their tracking survey which revealed that 2/3 of the MSSP ACO’s were highly unlikely (54%) to sign a new two-sided contract, or highly unlikely to finish a contract (8%) or somewhat unlikely (4%) with 26% undecided.

Even though most of the groups entering the program already had sophisticated EHR tracking and reporting systems the time lost to bureaucracy and the ongoing maintenance costs of $1.5-2 million a year were discouraging. Add to that the fact that expected return of shared savings to the providers was reduced by their failure to meet quality standards (most of which are the old, discredited process metrics).

CMS’ previous inflated press release contained the same kind of obfuscation of the Pioneer ACO program. See…

Primary Care Payment Quick Fix


 Getting a Twofer

There is a quick fix to the inequity of Medicare and Medicaid payments to primary care physicians.  It is hidden in the Conversion Factor. So bear with me.

It is generally conceded that medical care reform in our country depends on redeveloping a strong primary care base.  At the present time payments for primary care physicians services are not competitive with those of specialties that perform procedures. Not only does that reward doing procedures whether they are indicated or not but it overvalues the time spent doing procedures as compared with time spent in personal, comprehensive and coordinated care. Furthermore it has driven downward the interest of medical students to choose the primary care specialties for their careers, a decrease of 50% in the last16 years. The result is the expectation that we are going to have to add 52,000 to the expected number of primary doctors over the next 12 years.

The Affordable Care Act does little to address this problem. Recent rules by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to provide separate payment for transitional care (care from facility back to community) are pitiful and loaded with extra paperwork and bureaucracy. The same is true of the three proposed Complex Chronic Care Management payments to begin in 2015.

Medicare’s formula for calculating the physician payment schedule is complex. It starts with the hundreds of CPT codes which describe all reimbursable doctor patient encounters (office visits, surgeries, etc.) Then each code is given a composite RVU (Relative Value Unit) made up of three basic RVUs, (1) the Physician Work RVU, (2) the Practice Expense RVU, and (3) the Malpractice RVU. Additionally, each of the basic RVU’s is assigned a modifier based on the geographic area (the GPCI) where the service is billed. Each RVU is then multiplied by its GPCI. The three results of these three actions are then added together to produce the composite RVU. This result is then multiplied by a conversion factor (CF) to convert the composite RVU into a dollar amount. This conversion factor is updated annually by a formula prescribed by Congress and it is the key. However, before CMS can use this conversion factor it has to apply a “budget neutrality” to it in order to insure that it does not exceed its annual budget by more than $20 million. Now we come to the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR). This was enacted by Congress in1997 and is designed to add a final revision of the Conversion Factor for the next year’s payments. Since 2003 Congress has voted annually to postpone the calculated fee cuts.

Much attention is being paid to the whole fee-for-service problem and there are many ideas about what to do. They range everywhere from abandoning fee-for-service to totally revising the codes, definitions, and values in the present system.  Any and all of these could take years to accomplish if Congress could ever agree on what to do. As noted above, the formula for the Conversion Factor is a statutory prescription.

The Fix: Only Congress can change it. It would only take a simple bill to direct CMS to use two different conversion factors, one for primary (Evaluation & Management) codes and one for procedural codes. The RVU calculations could remain the same but at the end the RVU’s could be split into two groups and the Conversion Factor for E&M increased to a level to provide a 25% increase in primary care payments. The Conversion Factor for procedures could be reduced proportionally to maintain budget neutrality. An even better twofer would be to combine this with wording to eliminate the SGR.

Admittedly, this quick fix would not solve the cost and quality problems of our present system but at least it would help put the brakes on the loss of our primary care infrastructure. It would have the secondary benefit of improving accessibility and thereby enjoying the documented decrease in medical spending created by a stronger primary care base.